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Remembering the lost children of El Salvador's war

The Salvadoran government recently apologized for its role in the forced disappearance of children during its 12-year war. Some say targeting children was a tactic to invoke terror on families.

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“We can’t forget that these children were innocent victims of a cruel war,” says Ester Alvarenga, general coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda, a nonprofit organization working to find children who were disappeared during the war. “The state has an obligation to investigate these cases and bring them to justice.”

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With as many as 20 new cases of war-time child disappearances coming to light each year, Ms. Alvarenga estimates that close to 2,000 children may have been disappeared during the war.

So far, Pro-Búsqueda has found 380 of those missing children – 52 of whom had been killed, and many of whom had been adopted into foreign families, mostly in the United States.

Survivor Andrés Antonio Romero’s children were disappeared in a 1983 massacre when his small community of Tenango-Guadalupe was ambushed by the Salvadoran Army. While he survived the massacre – he was imprisoned and tortured for 27 days – his wife and four of his six children were killed. One surviving son was kidnapped and forced into the Army. The second was adopted by a family in the US. With the help of international NGOs, Mr. Romero was able to reunite with both sons more than a decade ago.

But in what Romero called a show of “solidarity,” he attended the mass and burial of the 18 San Cristóbal massacre victims in late October, even though he wasn’t related to any of them.

“Everyone suffered,” Mr. Romero says. “I feel committed because ... I understand what these families are going through, because I suffered just like them.”

A lesson for younger generations

“The exhumation process has been hard, seeing all the children’s little clothes and their things,” says Candelario Antonio Flamenco, whose mother was killed during the San Cristóbal massacre. His sister was identified among the victims in this mass grave.

“But now I can give my sister a Christian burial,” Mr. Flamenco says.

Flamenco says the discovery is important for younger generations who grew up after the peace accords. “I tell my daughter about what I suffered, what we all suffered, but she doesn’t understand,” he says.

“Now, seeing the little coffins, going to the grave site, it will teach her about what happened, and to not forget.”

Most of the bodies of the 75,000 dead or 8,000 disappeared have yet to be found or given proper burials, says Helí Jeremias Hernández of the Madeleine Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, the NGO that organized the exhumation and burial of the 18 San Cristóbal massacre victims.

For Escobar, who says she appreciated the president’s apology even though the leftist government was not in power during the war, the burial of her mother and brothers represented the end of her nightmares.

“I feel at peace,” she says. “After being abandoned for so long, now they won’t be forgotten.”


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